Old Buildings Become Living Legacies


Just as some people have multiple careers, some buildings lead multiple lives.

A case in point is the 39 West building, at 39th Street and Western Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles, which started life in the 1920s as a bank and went on to become a popular diner in later decades.

Several years ago, the diner closed and the building turned into a derelict. Now the former bank has undergone a radical architectural make-over and will open this month as 34 studio apartments for formerly homeless adults.

The building is an example of how aging commercial structures can be turned into housing for low-income residents. Such conversions enable nonprofit home builders--in this case Los Angeles-based A Community of Friends--to create housing units at a lower cost than that of new construction.

Beyond new housing, however, the reuse of abandoned storefronts has benefits for the community at large. Conversions can give new life to handsome older buildings. And new housing represents investment into otherwise depressed and underused commercial streets, which may attract further new investment.


For residents, housing on commercial corridors can be convenient, especially for those who cannot afford cars.

“We are very happy to be able to walk to the post office, walk to the bank, walk to the market,” said Aimee Neufeld, housing and development consultant of Gramercy Housing Group, a nonprofit agency that builds and manages “service-enriched” transitional housing for young families.

The Los Angeles-based nonprofit earlier this year completed Gramercy Court, the conversion of an aging retail building at 1824 4th Ave. in the Mid-City area into 16 units of “special-needs” housing for young single mothers and their children.

Not only do storefront buildings often enjoy good access to bus service, but the reuse of older properties means that the home builders can sometimes avoid the cost of providing two new parking spaces for every unit, according to Monique Lawshe, executive director of A Community of Friends.

In an older building, “we can’t put that much parking in, because there is nowhere to put it,” Lawshe said. In new construction, however, codes requiring parking would be triggered automatically, she added.

From a community standpoint, residential conversions are also a way to bring some new life to depressed commercial corridors, said Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing, a trade group that represents builders of low-income and special-needs housing.

“In neighborhoods that have become fairly dilapidated, a housing project will go in and have an uplifting impact for the whole block,” said Breidenbach, who cited the beneficial effect of five housing projects--both renovation and new construction--on 3rd Street near downtown Los Angeles, where some landlords have painted their properties to keep up with the clean looks of newer buildings, she said.

Gramercy Housing Group, for its part, has purchased a second building, two blocks west of Gramercy Court, and plans a large child-care center in that building to accommodate the residents of both complexes.

At the same time, Breidenbach cautioned that a single housing development on a depressed commercial street may not accomplish miracles. On blocks made up entirely of rundown commercial buildings, she said, “it might be a harder sell to get the whole neighborhood to come back.” On the other hand, she said, a successful adaptation could inspire other landlords to try similar strategies.

To be sure, restoring old buildings is often costly and technically difficult. Cost overruns are common, as surprise construction problems surface and developers face cosmetic choices. To provide earthquake reinforcements that would not mar the terra-cotta facade of Gramercy Court, the home builder chose to spend an additional $8,000. The entire restoration project cost about $1.1 million, Neufeld said.

And in 39 West, the architects had to solve engineering problems of shoring up the walls of the original building, while building essentially a new structure behind the existing walls.

Why go to the trouble and expense to preserve ordinary old buildings? According to architect Leo Marmol, principal of Marmol & Radziner, which designed 39 West, the act of reusing old buildings for new purposes has a social and cultural meaning far beyond creating new housing.

The 39 West building “was a diner that many people remember eating in,” he said. “With that kind of historic context, it would be a shame to lose the building completely. We were interested in preserving a fragment of that urban memory.”

Old buildings, he added, are “markers within our urban fabric that give us a sense of location.” If all the familiar buildings in a neighborhood were removed, Marmol said, “we would lose that sense of direct memory that creates meaning and [the sense of] continuum within our lives. If everything in our life was new every day, we would be lost.”

In some cases, old buildings bear witness to the changing history of neighborhoods, such as a former hotel and bathhouse in Boyle Heights. The hotel, also dating from the 1920s, was known locally in the Jewish community as the shvitz, Yiddish for “steam bath.”

Five years ago, A Community of Friends bought the vacated and boarded-up building and created 62 “single-room-occupancy” units on the two upper stories. On the ground floor, the apartment manager’s office occupied the former location of a men’s clothing store. And in the subterranean floor, where the steam room and massage tables formerly existed, the developer created a community room, a television room and a laundry.

Although architect Marmol advocates reusing old buildings, he said he does not believe that old buildings must remain unchanged. He is unapologetic about the vast alterations he made to the 39 West building, which was gutted and built anew.

“This is not a historic restoration by any sense of the world. It’s an aggressive rehab,” Marmol said. “We have very consciously made an intervention into that original building. So you see a dialogue, a contrast between the old and the new.”

He said he hoped owners of surrounding buildings will follow the example of 39 West. “We hope that kind of celebration will encourage others along that street to do the same, to save what can be saved, to preserve our urban memory, and remove what is no longer useful.”